JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Surrounded by hundreds all day, Ollie Schniederjans just wanted to be alone. Late Thursday afternoon, he retreated to a private spot in the Atlanta Athletic Club locker room, in front of stall B-229.
Moments earlier, in front of about 300 hometown fans, the Georgia Tech junior had stumbled off the 18th green after a stunning 1-up loss to Gunn Yang in the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur.
“Who is that guy?” Schniederjans asked during a quiet moment in the locker room. “I mean, I’ve never heard of him. He’s going to be incredible. He’s the best player in the world … well, today he is.”
Today, perhaps, but to locate Yang in the world amateur rankings you’d have to keep scrolling – to No. 776.
Schniederjans, meanwhile, has played as the No. 1 all summer, and he likely will remain there at week’s end, earning him spots in both 2015 summer Opens.
Not that he was thinking about that consolation prize afterward.
“I’m just extremely disappointed,” he said.
The thing is, the 21-year-old could easily have bailed early. He could have followed NCAA Player of the Year Patrick Rodgers to the pros. After a school-record, five-win season, Schniederjans could have collected a big-time equipment deal, received a few sponsor exemptions, tried to make it on his own.
But turning pro early would have just felt … unsatisfying.
Despite never winning the NCAA team title, Georgia Tech has churned out a number of pro prospects over the years. Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder won the Haskins Award as the nation’s best player. Troy Matteson won the NCAA title. David Duval was a four-time All-American.
So, sure, while Schniederjans acknowledges there is the potential to rewrite the school record books, that’s not his main motivation.
No, this is finally his year to be the guy, the No. 1, because during the 2013-14 season, he played so well but still didn’t receive the recognition he deserved.
Last spring he engaged in a cross-country game of H.O.R.S.E. with Stanford’s Rodgers, each guy trading wins and top finishes as they battled for Player of the Year honors. With one final chance to sway voters, Schniederjans lost in a playoff at the NCAA Championship.
“The stress that he was under last spring,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The kid was burned out, physically and mentally, which is why he has played only one amateur event (Palmer Cup) this summer. In the weeks leading up to the Amateur, he quietly worked on his game and even headed to California, to the Titleist Performance Institute, to get his equipment dialed in.
“He wanted to make sure he had enough energy to deal with what was coming,” Heppler said, “and that was the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
That much was apparent during the 36-hole qualifier. Out of sync while playing in a painfully slow three-ball, Schniederjans carded an opening 73, placing him outside the cut line after Round 1.
“When he stepped to the tee on Monday, I told him: You want to know what Rory McIlroy will feel like when he steps to the first tee at Augusta? You’re feeling it now,” Heppler said.
“The players going against Rory are better, of course, but the emotions and feelings and nerves, they’re all the same, regardless of the competition. When you’re the guy, the world No. 1, in your hometown, all he could really do was screw it up.”
But he didn’t, rebounding with a 69 to advance to match play. When asked how it felt, to finally be the top player and the main target in an elite event, Schniederjans replied: “Great. In my comfort zone, like that’s where I should be.”
Which was yet another reason to come back for his senior year.
“Every single tournament he plays he’s going to be the favorite,” Heppler said. “You don’t learn that stuff by finishing 15th in a Web.com event. If you really want to progress, to be one of the best players in the world, you have to learn how to deal with the emotions.”
After a 6-and-5 win in the first round, Schniederjans let a late lead slip Thursday morning against Sam Burns. On the first playoff hole, he could only watch as Burns’ 10-footer to win slid by. Schniederjans wound up prevailing on the second playoff hole.
He seemed well on his way to cruising in the afternoon as well, jumping out to a 2-up lead through four holes. “So this is how the No. 1 player in amateur golf plays,” Yang said to himself, but the San Diego State sophomore birdied three in a row (Nos. 5, 6 and 7) to return the match to all square.
Another birdie binge would follow. After Schniederjans regained a 1-up advantage with a par on the difficult 15th, Yang went on a torrid run that left Schniederjans stunned.
On 16, Yang hit a pitching wedge from the fairway bunker to 10 feet. Birdie.
On 17, from nearly the same yardage (142) as the hole before, he stuffed his tee shot to 7 feet. Birdie.
And though the tee was moved up on the par-5 18th, making a narrow fairway even tighter, he bombed a 320-yard drive that left him only a 6-iron into the green. After Schniederjans’ shot from the bunker trickled onto the back fringe, Yang hit a bullet from 190 yards that settled 15 feet away for an easy two-putt birdie to close out the win.
“He was out of his mind, really,” said Schniederjans, who shot 3 under on his own ball, counting the usual concessions. “It took everything he had to get 1 up, so I’m proud I was that hard to beat.”
But there was no mistaking that the disappointment will take a few days, maybe even a week, to subside.
While Schniederjans slumped on a bench in the locker room, Yang smiled wide as he sat on a wooden chair in the upstairs media center, reliving the best round of his life.